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Meet Emma Pfeiler, a Sophomore majoring in Neuroscience. She spent the semester working in the Neuro Image Research and Analysis Laboratories (NIRAL) in the Department of Psychiatry at UNC School of Medicine. The neuroimaging labs in NIRAL provide the core facilities for image processing for several large schizophrenia studies, a large autism study, a fragile-X study (linked study with Stanford), a large 3D ultrasound neonatal study, and facilities to integrate fMRI studies from the Duke-UNC Brain Image Analysis Center (BIAC) with structural images.

Tell us about your research. I worked in NIRAL’s imaging lab and assisted with the analysis of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data of two-week-old infants from the Brain and Early Experience (BEE) Study. I performed brain masking, which is the initial step of structural medical imaging data. Ultimately, NIRAL reports the volumetric and morphometric results for each MRI they receive. Those results are often analyzed to learn more about schizophrenia, autism, and other neuropsychiatric diseases.

What did you like most? I really enjoyed working hands-on with the data. It was really rewarding to be able to see the visible change in my finished MRIs compared to the pre-processed data. Most of all, I loved the feeling I got when I finished a mask, knowing that I had just contributed and completed an important step in the research process.

Has this experience changed your ideas about research? Before working at NIRAL, I think I, like many other people, was ignorant of the data-processing steps that go in to producing usable data for researchers to study and manipulate. Often, research positions work with obtaining data or analyzing data for significance and trends, but forget the steps that translate obtained data to something that is comprehendible. I will definitely be more cognizant of the data-processing step in my future research endeavors!

Our Undergraduate Research Series features spotlights on our Psychology and Neuroscience majors and minors who are conducting undergraduate research with our faculty! We believe strongly that undergraduate experiences are greatly enriched by inquiry and discovery through undergraduate research. Research experiences allow students to better understand literature, determine areas of interest, discover their passion for research, continue on to graduate studies, and to jump start their careers as researchers. If you are an undergraduate who is interested in pursuing research experiences, we offer PSYC and NSCI 395 as an opportunity to work side-by-side with graduate students and faculty members on cutting-edge psychological and neuroscience research. We also recommend you visit the Office for Undergraduate Research to find research opportunities, apply for research funding, and for helpful tools and advice. Research opportunities abound at UNC – find one that works for you!

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